The past few weeks have been tough for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony last week shed light on a lot of popular concerns, scaring some and urging yet others to take part in the #deletefacebook movement; meanwhile, stocks rallied due to an understanding that no serious action was going to be taken. Senator Kennedy’s statement “You can go back home, spend $10 million on lobbyists and fight us or you can go back home and help us solve this problem and they’re two. One is a privacy problem the other one is what I call a propaganda problem…”, is very timely and significant.
Against this backdrop, Facebook has made a significant move in poll bound Karnataka. With elections in Karnataka being scheduled for 12th May, Facebook has announced a third-party fact checking program to limit the spread of fake news on the platform. This is a pilot project being run in collaboration with BOOM. BOOM is a really interesting initiative. They call themselves an “independent digital journalism initiative” that is a “premier fact checking website, committed to bring to our readers verified facts rather than opinion”. BOOM essentially fact checks news; their website has a separate section flagged as fake news. Such a move is required given the speed and scale at which fake news spreads.
There has been a paradigm shift in the way elections are fought in India. The battle to influence the voter’s mind isn’t just fought on the street, it is also fought on their phones. The posters, advertisements are only one part. The bigger battle is being fought on social media platforms.
The announcement made by Facebook details the course of action to be taken in order to counter fake news and the operation of the new system. If a fact-checker were to rate a story as false, the article would drop in the news feed, thereby lowering circulation– This is an efficient way to curtail black propaganda. Furthermore, if there are any fact-checked articles, they will appear with along with the down-rated article. Apart from this, users and administrators who post fake news will also be notified of the marking. Users will also be allowed to rate an article’s authenticity.
This is an extremely welcome and significant development given the undue influence of fake facts on large-scale elections. The American and British experiences have shown how effective information warfare can be: They deliver tangible results. Various studies conducted over periods of time conclusively show that bad news spreads faster than good news. Using such proven methods to design propaganda, news crafted with a certain intention can be made to spread to a large population in a very short period of time. A perception about a political party or an individual can be created in the minds of the voters thereby influencing election outcomes. Given the essential nature of these mediums, entities or groups with a vested interest can use it to influence outcomes.
In India, different communication platforms are used to spread information. Political parties choose a platform based on complex calculations. WhatsApp is a very critical source. In the Indian context, its penetration is far greater than social media platforms. While some people may or may not have Facebook, everyone has WhatsApp. There are hundreds and thousands of forwards circulating in countless groups. Most of us can relate to that one family group that has essentially become an endless pit of (often) baseless forwards ranging from Sylvester Stallone’s death for the 100th time to Indian space expeditions during ancient times.
Facebook’s initiative addresses an important avenue from which information is spread, the overall effectiveness of such programs can never be ascertained. Only if these efforts are successful, will we see the intended impact. There are also more complicated issues of network dynamics in place where news may circulate within a particular circuit. Over and above this, there will always be the probability of some news managing to seep through. A emerging trend in manufacturing fake news is the use of a real template with modifications to tiny parts of it in order to completely change the narrative. The people behind creating fake news are always a step ahead of such actions. They will find new ways to ensure that their content spreads like wildfire. Nonetheless, Facebook’s call to action is a warm respite and hopefully, marks the beginning of an on-going, continuous movement.
Picture Credits: Irish Central